A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America

A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America

5.0 1
by Peter Steinfels

In A People Adrift, a prominent Catholic thinker states bluntly that the Catholic Church in the United States must transform itself or suffer irreversible decline. Peter Steinfels shows how even before the recent revelations about sexual abuse by priests, the explosive combination of generational change and the thinning ranks of priests and nuns was creating aSee more details below


In A People Adrift, a prominent Catholic thinker states bluntly that the Catholic Church in the United States must transform itself or suffer irreversible decline. Peter Steinfels shows how even before the recent revelations about sexual abuse by priests, the explosive combination of generational change and the thinning ranks of priests and nuns was creating a grave crisis of leadership and identity.

This groundbreaking book offers an analysis not just of the church's immediate troubles but of less visible, more powerful forces working below the surface of an institution that provides a spiritual identity for 65 million Americans and spans the nation with its parishes, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies.

In A People Adrift, Steinfels warns that entrenched liberals and conservatives are trapped in a "theo-logical gridlock" that often ignores what in fact goes on in families, parishes, classrooms, voting booths, and Catholic organizations of all types. Above all, he insists, the altered Catholic landscape demands a new agenda for leadership, from the selection of bishops and the rethinking of the priesthood to the thorough preparation and genuine incorporation of a lay leadership that is already taking over key responsibilities in Catholic institutions.

Catholicism exerts an enormous cultural and political presence in American life. No one interested in the nation's moral, intellectual, and political future can be indifferent to the fate of what has been one of the world's most vigorous churches -- a church now severely challenged.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Though Mr. Steinfels sifts issues on a wide range of topics -- the replacing of nuns in Catholic schools with lay teachers in parish catechetical sessions, the identity of Catholic higher education and social services, the need for a more inspired liturgy -- he boldly makes questions of sex and gender the center of his concern. Some like to dismiss these as a minor aspect of church life, inflated in importance only by sensation-seekers, but Mr. Steinfels sees a wave of interrelated changes in society's views of gender, the family and reproduction as one of the great axial shifts in history, of the kind that reorient entire cultures. — Gary Wills
Publishers Weekly
What a challenging time for the Catholic Church in America, and what a challenge to write a comprehensive assessment of its past 40 years to draft a list of possible futures. But veteran New York Times religion correspondent Steinfels, also former editor of Commonweal magazine and teacher at Georgetown and Notre Dame, is ideal for the task. Steinfels is deeply knowledgeable through research and experience of his formidably vast subject, and he brings personal loyalty to his faith, moderated by the detachment of his profession. Blessedly, the sex scandal that shook the church in 2002 gets context from a man who wrote about the occurrence of abuse a decade earlier. Large institutional questions-primary and higher education, health care, worship, leadership, the priesthood, roles for laity and women-all are examined through Steinfels's own years of reporting as well as through the lenses of major studies by sociologists. If anything, the book is not big enough for so complex a subject. Steinfels sounds a call for a reasoned common ground that respects the richness of tradition and also reflects the reality of the practices and needs of more than 60 million American Catholics, rather than the agendas of any number of the small but vocal groups within Catholicism. This book will be hailed by many, and with good reason; it should not be ignored by Catholic officials. (Aug.) Forecast: PW's May 12 article about recent trends in Catholic publishing noted that "a whole new category of post-scandal reform books has emerged," including this book and David Gibson's engaging The Coming Catholic Church (Harper San Francisco, July). Both of these serious journalistic accounts deserve a wide readership. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Currently the New York Times "Beliefs" columnist and a former editor of Commonweal, Steinfels has written a thoughtful book on the Catholic Church in America, which concentrates on neither theology nor spirituality but on the Church as institution. Steinfels maintains that the Catholic Church in America is adrift, suffering from a leadership vacuum affecting the Church's public role as well as its needed internal change. Old models of church and of hierarchical leadership are simply incapable of addressing needed institutional outreach and reform. Moreover, Steinfels suggests, the current crop of bishops lacks the imagination to find common ground with the ambient culture while protecting Church continuity. If the leadership vacuum is to be successfully remedied, he argues, both lay and ordained Catholics need to engage in civil conversation and to employ the energy of religious imagination. Like most of Steinfels's writing, this is enjoyable to read; recommended for academic and public libraries.-David I. Fulton, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Taking the pulse of American Catholicism after its annus horribilis, the New York Times’ veteran religion correspondent offers a diagnosis of how the Church wound up in intensive care. Though sex-abuse scandals have dominated the headlines, problems in the Church run deeper, as indicated by falling "Catholic indicators" such as church attendance rates, knowledge of faith, and ratio of priests to parishioners. "If the sex abuse scandal had never occurred, the Catholic Church in the United States would still face a crisis," comments Steinfels (Neoconservatism, 1979, etc.), former editor of the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal. Many of the Church’s difficulties, he observes, stem from two transitions occurring simultaneously: the passage from a pre- to a post-Vatican Council generation and from clerical to lay leadership. With great subtlety, the author traces how these transitions will affect worship, spiritual life, religious education and formation, leadership, and the Church’s vast network of hospitals and social services. Men ordained during John Paul II’s papacy, he suggests, might be more involved with priestly roles than with organizational and administrative tasks that would require lay participation. Moreover, the declining number of parochial schools requires greater stress on "catechetical programs" (the new phrase for religious instruction) that often add little to children’s understanding of their faith. The author’s mastery of material enables him to provide unexpected insights. For instance, he warns like many others that without large-scale changes in vowed or religious life, the Church will never have enough priests or nuns to keep up with population growth. But heoffers a different reason than most: Vatican II’s recent recognition that the call to holiness in marriage and the family is as rewarding as the life of the celibate--a change that not even John Paul II is prepared to reverse. A refreshingly balanced perspective often missing from both conservative (Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men) and liberal (Garry Wills’s Papal Sin) jeremiads about the troubles in this venerable institution.
From the Publisher
Kevin Starr Los Angeles Times Book Review Peter Steinfels is among the most distinguished and respected Catholic commentators in the country....A People Adrift is balanced and judicious.

Alan Wolfe The New Republic The moderation and the heartfelt sincerity on display throughout Steinfels' book constitute, at least for this non-Catholic, an exceptionally persuasive defense of Catholicism as the church goes through its difficult days.

David O'Brien National Catholic Reporter Peter Steinfels is uniquely qualified by his experience, his access to sources and his journalist's professionalism to survey the state of contemporary American Catholicism.

Garry Wills The New York Times Steinfels' balance makes all the more unsettling the harsh conclusions he draws, in his quiet voice, from looking at every aspect of Catholic life....[A] disturbing book.

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Simon & Schuster
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A People Adrift

The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America
By Peter Steinfels

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2003 Peter Steinfels
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-83663-7


Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.

A few years ago, that proposition might have seemed melodramatic, typical journalistic sensationalism. Then, in the first half of 2002, the church was hit with a gale of revelations about sexual molestation of minors by priests, and as the winds of scandal continued to howl and howl, it seemed that no statement about the Catholic Church was too melodramatic or exaggerated to get a serious hearing. My own analysis of the sex scandal, somewhat different from the standard versions, will come later. But the important point is that the church faced these rather stark alternatives of decline or transformation before the revelations and would do so today even if this shocking sexual misconduct had never occurred. The reasons the church faces major choices about its future, while not unrelated to aspects of the scandal, go even deeper, to two intersecting transitions in American Catholic life. How the church responds (or fails to respond) to those transitions will determine its course for much of this century.

That future is obviously of great interest to devout Catholics. It should be of interest, in fact, to other thoughtful Americans, and to non-Americans who recognize the place that the American church occupies in both the world's most powerful nation and the world's largest single religious body. The fate of American Catholicism will have a significant impact on the nation's fabric, its political atmosphere, its intellectual life, and its social resilience. It will have a significant impact on worldwide Catholicism; in short, on the world.

The American Catholic Church is a unique institution. In ways obvious or mysterious, profound or trivial, the Catholic Church provides a spiritual identity for between 60 and 65 million Americans, approximately one-fourth of the population. These millions are Catholic in amazingly diverse ways. For some, their faith is the governing force of their lives. For others, it is a childhood memory with little impact (so they think) on their adult existence, something casually evoked by a poll taker's question, for want of any other religious label. There are Catholics for whom the church is the source of peace and joy, and Catholics for whom it is the cause of fierce anger and outrage. Not infrequently, these are the same Catholics. In recent years, if the Gallup poll is believed, approximately 30 million Catholics go to Mass at least once a week, although this total appears to have at least temporarily dropped by several million because of the sex scandal. Other measures put the number at Sunday Mass on an ordinary weekend at somewhat under 20 million. Another 15 to 17 million go to Mass regularly, some at least monthly, many of them "almost" every week. Even in the year of the sex scandal, half of the nation's Catholics say that their religion is "very important" in their lives, and another third say it is "fairly important."

The church spans the nation with its parishes, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and clinics, and a social service system second only to the government's. Despite the impact of the sex scandals, Catholicism remains a powerful moral force in a society with fewer and fewer moral authorities of any sort.

Like virtually no other American institution, the Catholic church is a bridge. Unlike the nation's second largest religious body, the Southern Baptist Convention, or many other geographically concentrated faith groups, the Catholic church links regions: Catholic New England with Catholic New Mexico, by way of the urban Midwest - Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Louis. What is more crucial, the church bridges races and classes, suburban neighborhoods and inner-city ghettoes. It links power brokers on Wall Street or Capitol Hill, whose grandparents were immigrants from Europe, with newly arrived immigrants from Latin American, Haiti, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.

In Los Angeles, for example, the cardinal archbishop, Roger Mahony, has mixed easily with the city's newspaper editors and Hollywood executives, but he is also viewed as an advocate for struggling Hispanics and other outsiders. In his archdiocese's 287 parishes, Mass is said in thirty-eight languages. More than half of the Brooklyn diocese's parishioners are said to speak English as their second language. In Holland, Michigan, the home of the tulip festivals and a daunting number of denominations descended from Dutch Calvinism, Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church often greets callers with a phone message in both Spanish and English - and has a special monthly Mass in Vietnamese.

A church that embraces so many different groups inevitably becomes not only a bridge but also a battleground for the culture wars dividing American society. Many of the issues facing Catholicism mirror those of the larger society: anxieties over rapid change, sexuality, gender roles, and the family; a heightening of individualism and distrust of institutions; the tension between inclusiveness and a need for boundaries; a groping for spiritual meaning and identity; doubts about the quality of leadership.

The size and stretch of American Catholicism would have been unthinkable, probably even appalling, to most of the leading citizens of the young United States two centuries ago. At the time of the American Revolution, the twenty-five thousand Catholics in the former colonies constituted but one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, and their church, in the eyes of many of their countrymen, embodied everything that the brash new nation was striving to escape. Catholicism was the hereditary foe of the liberty in whose name the Revolution had been fought. It was the seedbed of superstition and the sworn enemy of Protestant conscience, enlightened reason, and scientific advancement. Worldly, corrupt, and cynical, the Church of Rome was viewed as a stronghold of priestcraft, moral corruption, medieval obscurantism, and monarchical tyranny. New England piety and Enlightenment rationalism, however divided in other respects, could unite on this.

Those Revolutionary-era forebears could scarcely have imagined, certainly not with equanimity, that in a little more than a century, the Catholic Church would become the nation's single largest religious body. On the eve of the nation's bicentennial, Catholicism would be implanted in 18,500 parishes; the church had created a skein of flourishing institutions, with 8,500 elementary schools and 1,600 high schools, 245 colleges and universities, 750 hospitals and health clinics that, along with a network of social services, treated or assisted over 35 million people each year. In many a Northern and Midwestern city, Catholic spires defined neighborhoods the way that Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist steeples had anchored rural villages and small towns.

What would have assuredly baffled those first generations of Americans even more is the fact that by the middle of the twentieth century, Roman Catholicism, the once alien creed, had become virtually identified with Americanism. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was scarcely a more reliable indicator of being patriotic, it seemed, than being Catholic. It would not be long before the last barrier fell: in 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president.

Having confounded the assumptions and expectations of early Americans about Catholicism's American destiny, history now did the same to Catholics. The church had won its vaunted place in the American mainstream by standing apart, by celebrating and inculcating democratic and conventional middle class values, but in its own way - at arm's length and within its own all-embracing institutions. Now the defensiveness could be relaxed; the permeable membrane with which the church had guarded its members could be officially dissolved. But barely had the American Catholic Church sunk back for a few moments of comfort into the soft upholstery of acceptance than it was thrown into turmoil.

The sources of that turmoil were both internal and external. First and foremost, the Second Vatican Council upended Catholicism's theological and liturgical certainties. But it was the church's fate that such an unprecedented effort at self-scrutiny and renewal coincided with all that was summed up in the shorthand phrase "the sixties." In the United States that meant the civil rights struggle, the rise of a youthful counterculture, and the conflict over Vietnam. The civil rights struggle, although it began in the South, where Catholics were lightly represented, posed painful questions about widespread attitudes and practices to which Catholics had individually and institutionally often accommodated. Eventually the campaign against racial discrimination sent tremors through the urban neighborhoods that had long been Catholic ethnic strongholds. Likewise, the countercultural revolt that dumped the gray flannel suit, "I like Ike," and Leave It to Beaver for drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll struck hard at the moral restraint and respectability that the church had taught to waves of immigrants and their suburban children, sometimes as though equivalent to the gospel itself. Finally, America's engagement in Vietnam, denounced by Catholic priests and church-bred antiwar activists, tore at American Catholics' confidence that their faith and their enthusiastic Americanism coincided.

American Catholicism, in other words, would not have escaped conflict and change even if there had been no Second Vatican Council. Inner-city parishes would have felt the consequences of suburban growth and white flight. The religious patterns of immigrant subcultures would have been frayed by the educational and economic successes of the postwar generations. Catholic marriages, sexual mores, and attitudes about male and female roles would have been shaken by the pill, the sexual revolution, and the women's movement. But the Council magnified the theological repercussions of these developments. It emboldened critics within the church and legitimated new thinking that ultimately touched even the most intimate recesses of spiritual life.

Americans, regardless of their religious loyalties, were fascinated by the Second Vatican Council and by Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who called it against the advice of his Roman bureaucracy. The country had changed since anti-Catholicism contributed to the defeat of Al Smith's 1928 presidential campaign. Non-Catholics had come to appreciate, although still with a trace of envy and foreboding, the size of the church and its place in their communities. At the same time, Catholicism retained for many people an aura of mystery, of the exotic, even of the forbidden or sinister. And for Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the church had come to symbolize unyielding permanence, whether interpreted as an anachronistic obstacle to modern progress or as a solid rock in a convulsive landscape. The Council suddenly revealed the church less as the unmovable rock of Peter than as the barque of Peter, a ship being trimmed and retrimmed to catch breezes and ride out tempests, stanching leaks and undertaking repairs even as it navigated treacherous currents.

What happened in Rome when the world's Catholic bishops gathered in four separate sessions of roughly two months each from 1962 to 1965 summoned up deep feelings about permanence and change, steadfastness and adaptation. Americans also realized that the Council and its aftermath had very practical consequences for their own society. Almost immediately it eased long-standing tensions between Catholics and Protestants and between Catholics and Jews. It promised to alter the tonality of the nation's morals, to create new alliances in civic life, to bring new energies to neighborhoods.

Yet enthusiasm about ecumenism and "aggiornamento" (John XXIII's Italian for "updating") rather quickly turned to talk of "a church in crisis." In the name of the Council, priests and lay leaders were demanding changes that startled bishops and alarmed Rome. Catholic scholars set about digesting two centuries of theological thought and biblical exegesis that church authorities had managed to keep at bay. A drawn-out debate about the church's condemnation of contraception led a papal commission to urge a change in the teaching; and when, after several years of suspense, Pope Paul VI rejected the commission's conclusions, his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, only spurred questioning by the clergy as well as by the laity of the church's moral competence in matters of sexuality. Theologians publicly dissented from official teaching; priests quietly or not so quietly resigned from the priesthood to marry; nuns shed not only their peculiar head-to-foot garb but, in many cases, their traditional roles as schoolteachers and nurses, and not a few left their strife-ridden religious orders altogether.

All these developments were accompanied by volleys of accusations and counteraccusations along with dire predictions from all directions about the church's future. Church authorities had assiduously cultivated the image of a church united in its beliefs; now that image appeared shattered by poll data revealing wide differences between the faithful and official teachings. As the sixties passed into the seventies, moreover, the fact that the church became a leading actor in the bitter national dispute over legalized abortion meant that any evidence that the hierarchy was losing its hold on the flock would inevitably be underlined.

No wonder the word "crisis" was so widely heard. Catholicism in the United States, perhaps as much as anywhere in the world, was being swept by conflicting visions of everything from prayer and morality to the nature of the church, even to the nature of God. The church was prodded and buffeted not only by social movements and political moods but, since 1978, by a papacy that is at once dynamic in its leadership and conservative in its policies.

Every visit of Pope John Paul II to these shores, in 1979, 1987, 1993, and 1995, has been the occasion for taking the church's pulse, blood pressure, and temperature - and for issuing ominous diagnoses. Yet each time, the crowds and the fervor marking the visits, combined with the documented reservations of many Catholics about the pope's teachings, indicated how difficult it was to pronounce any simple verdict on the current strength and future prospects of American Catholicism.


Excerpted from A People Adrift by Peter Steinfels Copyright © 2003 by Peter Steinfels . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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